Creating an online archive of recipes, the Indian Community Cookbook Project attempts to preserve India’s diverse culinary heritage. They talk to The Locavore about the oldest book in their archives, accessibility, and the measure of pau chammach.
Over the years, so much of India’s culinary knowledge has slipped through the cracks, and been lost to us. Apart from the fact that culinary wisdom has traditionally been passed down orally, there’s also the aspect of languages to consider—some don’t even have scripts. And even though we have a rich and diverse heritage with so much to offer, documenting Indian food practices has always been a challenge. This is why we were instantly drawn to the work that the Indian Community Cookbook Project (ICCP) does.
Meet Ananya Pujary, Khushi Gupta, and Muskaan Pal who identified this massive gap, and decided to document food traditions across regions and communities in India. ICCP has been expanding its digital library since 2019, feeding into an ongoing wave of archiving heirloom recipes.
Their archive is openly-licensed, and to document recipes meaningfully, they work with printed and handwritten text, visuals, and audio. One of the features that fascinated us was the site’s timeline: they visually trace the chronology of cookbook publications region-wise.
Read excerpts from an email interview with the ICCP team, who began the Indian Community Cookbook Project while studying at FLAME University in Pune.
You have been digitising Indian cookbooks from across the country. What’s the oldest one in your archives, and what was archiving that like?
As of now, the oldest is The Goan Cookery Book by P F J De Souza, published in 1917. It was a submission by Felix Fernandes whose mother, Afra Margarida Fernandes, had the book at home. It was gifted to her at the time of her marriage, around the time she shifted to Kenya.
Written in Konkani, it is considered a staple in Goan households. Felix Fernandes was kind enough to scan and share the pages we needed. We felt lucky to be given permission to share such a rare cookbook with more people. While digitising cookbooks that aren’t fully accessible online, we comply with the number of pages we are allowed to share under copyright laws. That’s why we make sure to include the table of contents of the books. It gives readers a broad overview of the cuisine it features, important meals, and it can even point to the ingredients commonly used.
One of Indian Community Cookbook Project’s goals is to feature under-represented Indian cuisines. Tell us about some of the recipes that you have collected in this category, and how you found them.
From our secondary data collection of published Indian cookbooks, we were aware of the historically sparse documentation on community food from the Northeastern states, compared to other Indian states. Because of this, we are lucky to have two recipes—Rosup, and Dried Axone Pork—from the Naga cuisine on our website.
Both of these were shared with us by Sangke Konyak and Merenla Imsong, who are members of the cast of Axone, a film that addresses, through the lens of food, the discrimination faced by people from the Northeastern states who live in other parts of the country. We reached out to them through social media, which speaks to the ways in which our predominantly online methodology has allowed for our repository to grow.
For the project, you would have documented cookbooks across diverse scripts. How many Indian languages have you worked with, and what were some of the challenges of making these accessible to a larger audience?
Incorporating different languages has been a challenge because we don’t know a lot of regional languages. We end up turning to friends and family for help with translation. This way, most of the content on our website is in English, with some regional languages like Hindi and Kannada.
Since the start of the project, we’ve also been grappling with whether to choose transliteration or translation. To preserve the original meanings of words and phrases, we have a mix of both; we use transliteration for key terms (recipe names, ingredient names, unique measurements), but also provide an explanation of these in English. For example, different measuring values are used in some recipes—pau chammach (one-fourth spoon) is a unique measurement used in the preparation of the Bohri Alvi Mutton Curry. Eventually, we hope to hire translators to make our archive more linguistically diverse.
It’s lovely that your work is medium-agnostic, and that in order to archive, you work with print, sound, video, and so on. How do you decide which way to go—which medium you think people will take to most easily?
The best part about having different media to share recipes and food stories is that each caters to different people with different media preferences. We chose to not have just one form of media because going into this project, we quickly realised that not all recipes were written down: they were passed down orally, too. Since there was limited access to printers, some wrote them by hand. We haven’t observed any significant trends in people’s medium of preference yet.
A recipe reveals so much—socially, culturally, and politically. Can you share examples of cookbooks that offer glimpses into different times, and how people lived back then?
A great example is the Pakrajeshwar, a Bengali cookbook that now sits in the British Library. This is probably the first ever published cookbook in India (1831). Recipes in this exhibit a melange of local and Farsi flavours, but as you move down the timeline, even the kinds of ingredients that are most popular change. Another example is the Pak-Pranali (1883-1906)—a monthly cookbook journal that was published by Bipradas Mukhopadhyay—which reflects a redefinition of Bengali food, in which vegetables like cabbage found prominence. In the following year, issues of the journal also came to feature Italian and French influences.
However, as a project, we are aware that the process of cookbook publication is in itself a process of inclusion, or exclusion, of certain community voices. And we try to tackle that by having an archive as well.
We love the timeline feature on your website because it gives us so many insights into publishing trends, and how foodbooks changed over the course of history. What was the main intention behind this?
There is no extant repository regarding the evolution of Indian community cookbooks, and seeing how cookbooks have changed over time give us a sense of foreign influences, and sociopolitical, cultural and economic contexts during these periods. We created timelines to help capture that. For example, we saw the incorporation of novel technologies like the microwave into cooking (Mogul Microwave by Julie Sahni) and the creation of fusion cuisines (American Masala: 125 New Classics from My Home Kitchen by Suvir Saran).
By now, you would have pored over so many cookbooks, created across decades, and of course, much has changed with technology. Looking at cookbooks then and now, are there any things that have remained unchanged?
Interestingly, this is one of the questions we asked as part of our food memories interviews. We have found that a lot does remain unchanged in terms of the personal: cultural desire to follow tradition, nostalgia, and the feeling of home when it comes to community food. This is especially so for the Indian diaspora.
However, the technicality of it has changed, and we see it on our timelines across cuisines: utensils change, there is a shift from slow-cooking to faster methods with the arrival of the induction, ingredients change, and lastly, communities are blurring because of migration and globalisation of food cultures. This balance is actually quite interesting to us—that despite the change, community foods and cultures still thrive in one form or another because it is mostly driven by personal affection. These are foods you can make, although the how has been tweaked over the past decades.
How has working on the project changed the way each of you view and think about Indian food?
Muskaan: As someone who was born and brought up in Africa, and having only lived in India for the past five years, the ICCP has allowed me to appreciate the diversity in Indian food, which tends to get reduced to a handful of dishes like naan and butter chicken. Now, I not only see Indian food through my mother’s cooking, but also through a larger sociopolitical, economic and cultural lens that explains why we eat the things we do, and how cool it is for such cultures to have trickled down generations by word of mouth.
Ananya: I grew up moving around the Middle East, so working on this project helped me feel more connected to my community (as a Tuluva) and India. I inherited my culinary curiosity from my mother, who always made it a point to note down traditional recipes and ingredients from elders, even when we lived abroad. My community has historically relied on oral traditions. Only recently, with the advent of social media, has there been concrete documentation of our food. I have a greater understanding of and appreciation for everything that goes into preparing a dish, from the ingredients used to the context in which it is meant to be prepared.
Khushi: My love for collecting recipes began after coming across my mother’s handwritten recipe book. It was the most prized possession at home during festivals and it helped us stay in touch with our roots, despite being far away. (I was born in Rajasthan and brought up in Tamil Nadu.) Indian food has always been narrowed down only to a few dishes, and my views were no different. But soon I realised how each community holds their traditional recipes close to their hearts. ICCP has made me look at Indian food not just as another set of dishes but as an integral part of the identity of a community. It excites me and makes me curious to know the story behind every recipe that I come across.
What do you have planned for the next few years?
We plan to increase our repository and the visibility of our project by being part of conferences that discuss food histories, and also by getting our own domain! Particularly, we are looking forward to being a part of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) under the Canadian Social Knowledge Institute in the coming year as we won an ‘Emerging Open Scholarship Award’ earlier this year.
Shreshtha is a researcher and writer with an inclination towards the food-art-community nexus. As a part of The Locavore, she aims to learn about food from the intricate perspectives of policy, societal impact, and collective sustenance.